Cunningham Rods

Ford Power Stroke Diesel

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Greg Cunningham
Connecting Rods

550 W. 172nd Street
Gardena, Ca. 90248

Phone: 310-538-0605
Fax: 310-538-0695

Greg Cunningham's dragster as it looked at the first legal organized drag race ever held.

Pacific Coast Highway winds its way north from Los Angeles, intersects Santa Barbara, and continues on, passing through the town of Goleta. It was in Goleta, on a service road that was part of an airport field, which is today Santa Barbara municipal airport, that the first legal sanctioned drag race took place on Sunday, April 10th 1949.

The notoriety of this race was the result of the expanding car culture of Los Angeles. There, after World War Two, the young men who were fascinated by mechanics, cars and racing congregated at drive in restaurants like the Witch Stand on Slauson Avenue or Scribner's on Manchester Boulevard. They were part of something that would grow into various facets of the sport of motor racing, as we know it today. Many names that we recognize today and associate with racing products were part of that group. Nick Arias [Arias Pistons] Howard Johanson [Howard's Cams] Ed Iskenderian [Isky Cams] Stu Hilborn [Hilborn Fuel Injection] Ray Lipper [Center Line Wheels] Louie Senter [Ansen Automotive] and Greg Cunningham, were all part of that group. Some still in high school and some home from the war. These were the days when, for the most part, you couldn't just buy a part you wanted, you made it yourself.

Two things happened that spring to make for this memorable event. Street racers in Santa Barbara had approached the airport operators and asked that the stretch of road that ran along the edge of the airport property be made available on Sundays so that they could use it for drag racing, and their request was granted. That was how the first legal sanctioned drag race came to be. The second thing that gave the event impact and importance was that the two fastest and quickest cars in Los Angeles, Tom Cobbs roadster and Fran Hernandez three window coupe, were going to race each other at the event. This drew hot rodders and street racers from all over Southern California, but especially from Los Angeles.

There were several "firsts" that day. Tom Cobb had adapted a supercharger from a GM diesel to his flathead Ford. This was the first "blown" engine car at a drag race. Fran Hernandez ran a combination of gasoline and nitro methane in his flathead coupe, this was the first "nitro" car at a drag race. Cobb smoked the tires in his roadster allowing Hernandez to get a lead, which the blower car, even though it was pulling hard at the other end, could not close. Hernandez, who later ran the racing division of Ford Motor Co., won the featured match race at the first organized drag race by a car length.

There was another "first" that day. The first tube chassis "dragster" to ever make an appearance at an organized drag race. This was the car built by Greg Cunningham, who had welded it up at home and towed it on a trailer to Goleta for the race, with the idea that he would have the lightest car there. It was powered by a four cylinder Ford with a four port Riley head. It was driven by Jim Kavenaugh, who described it as a set of tube "rails" with "an engine, a piece of aluminum for a firewall, a seat, a roll bar, and four wheels".

To be completely honest, Cunningham did not call this car a "dragster"; the word had not been invented yet. Furthermore, what he had in mind was to eventually put a roadster body on it and race it at the numerous circle track events, which were being held in Los Angeles at the time. However, it was a purpose built tube chassis race car which had never been raced anywhere before [it was only completed on the Saturday night before the race] and was built for the primary purpose of competing at the first ever organized drag race with the primary design intention of being as light as possible. If you set out to find what would be designated as the first dragster, it would be difficult not to decide that this car was it.

It also had the dubious distinction of being the first dragster that crashed at the drag strip.

After arguing with the organizers of the race for hours, who did not want to let the car run and blocked it from running by saying "there was no place to put the number", it was resolved that they would paint the number on the tire, which they did. Cunningham got the car lit off and Kavenaugh brought it to the line and made his pass. But, when he was toward the other end, the throttle stuck wide open. There was a kill switch on the firewall, but he couldn't reach it because he was wearing an improvised seat belt.

There was another problem. The kill switch was a war surplus item that was "off" in the center position but was "on" in both the up and down positions. When Kavenaugh lunged forward to flip the switch off, he knocked it right through the center off position to the bottom on position, so the car never shut off and in the motion of lunging, he lost control of the car, which got sideways, flipped three times in the air and landed on its wheels in the drainage ditch beside the raised bed two lane road which was the "drag strip".

When asked, much later, if he was hurt in the accident, he replied, "naw, I was just all wet and smelly from the water in the ditch and my Levies and t-shirt shank" [which was all he was wearing]. That's what it was like at the dawn of drag racing.

Of course, Greg Cunningham went on to own and operate his own connecting rod company, at which he still works every day.

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